Salina FHSU graduate lands in the cultural experience of a lifetime

Traveling foreign soil without a familiar face to guide you or a common language to lean on may sound more like a nightmare than an adventure, but for one Fort Hays State University 2003 graduate, it has been the experience of a lifetime.

In September 2003, Larry J. Billinger packed his bags, boarded a plane and traded familiar comforts of the Kansas plains for the unknown territory of China.

"When I first got there, I kept saying to myself, 'I'm in China. I'm in a different country. I'm far from home,' " said Billinger.

Billinger's interest in traveling to China began with an invitation from Darwin Lee, director of International Communication and Exchange Department at SIAS University, to teach oral English for freshman English majors.

SIAS International University, located in Xinzheng City, a suburb of Zhengzhou in the Henan province of China, is the first American-owned university in China. It is affiliated with Zhengzhou University and, since 2000, with Fort Hays State University.

Billinger, however, traveled to China as a separate entity from FHSU and was enabled by funding from SIAS University for travel expenses from the U.S. coastline to mainland China.

He said "nearly every student at SIAS has heard of FHSU to one degree or another."

Although culture shock is familiar to many cross-cultural adventurers, Billinger said that the transition from American culture to Chinese culture was not dramatic.

"Everything is quite a bit different; transportation, language, culture and what they believe. The biggest thing to get used to is how to react to others around you, knowing what they mean and how to respond. To me, it was simple getting used to things. I was excited."

Contrasts between American culture and Chinese culture is understandable, but Billinger also said that the culture at SIAS University is different.

University students at SIAS live on campus in rooms designed for 6-8 individuals and a curfew is enforced. Unlike the party atmosphere common to many American universities, students at SIAS relax away from academics by frequenting local Internet bars. Adjusting to the official language of Mandarin Chinese is "not easy, but comical yes, and educational," said Billinger. "I have nothing but joy that I have learned as much as I have."

Although Mandarin Chinese is the official dialect recognized from Beijing to Hong Kong, more than100 dialects of Chinese exist. Individuals planning a trip to China would benefit most from studying Mandarin, Billinger said.

Aside from cultural adjustments, Billinger has also enjoyed his teaching experience in China.

"I've always wanted to be a teacher. It makes me happy to teach. I enjoy it a lot." Seventy-One international teachers this past year lived and worked alongside Billinger, as well as one other FHSU special student, Keith Conner. Many of the teachers are similar in age to Billinger, and many graduated from well-known institutions such as William and Mary. "As far as knowledge goes, there is not a huge difference from them and myself," Billinger said. He also believes that FHSU helped prepare and shape him into a well-rounded individual.

As an instructor at SIAS, Billinger receives about 2,101 yuan, equivalent to roughly $300 American. Housing and meals are paid for and the extra stipend teachers receive may be spent as they choose.

"You could easily live off of a hundred U.S. dollars a month in China," said Billinger.

Billinger observed that westerners are treated with the utmost respect. As a foreigner in China, Billinger said that, "you always have people looking at you."

Traveling cross-culturally is an eye-opening experience, but Billinger also believes it is not without personal initiative and work.

"For us, we had to really seek Chinese culture and learn about Chinese life for ourselves. It's easy to stay in the same group because of the international base existing there. You have to take personal initiative. I find it interesting and want to learn about it. I take trips home with the students to learn about their lives."

Billinger is at home in Salina and plans to return to SIAS in September. 2004 for another 8-9 months of teaching. Beyond that, he is still unsure of where he will be or what he will be doing.

Billinger misses his students and his friends and the individual lifestyle he established in China.

When Billinger is in China he misses driving, the variety of culture in America and his family. Teaching and living in China has allowed Billinger to experience people in real-life settings apart from academics.

"The biggest benefit is just the people I met or live with and how they are in real life and how real life works. The university life was more easy-going. It opened my eyes up and made me more aware of things happening in the U.S. and what is taken for granted. I got to know myself and others better in a non-academic world."

Billinger's time in China has been "incredibly great" and he looks forward to going back.

"It was an experience in my life I needed and wouldn't trade for anything."

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